What social movements mean for African politics

What social movements mean for African politics

By Olalekan Moyosore Lalude

Africa’s transition from a continent of colonial protectorates to independent states has been met with developmental and political challenges. From the 1960s, the political trajectory of Africa witnessed many regimes, regimes that have made their mark on the continent. The struggle for the legitimacy of state power between the African people and the regimes whose policies have shaped the political history of the continent oscillated between nationalistic interest and arbitrariness, at a time when the newly independent states needed a definite political direction.

For instance by 2002, the nationalistic government of Robert Mugabe had left Zimbabwe groveling in the drought stricken velds from bad economic policies. Today, Uganda is still reeling from the administrative recklessness of the Idi Amin regime. Considering the dark regimes that have been etched into the history of some states in Africa, democracy was a light that was to lead into a new dawn.

With democracy, came promises that would ensure the emancipation of dissident voices. The promises that democracy bore for African states were the development of state institutions and the improvement of state responses to the general will. For the people of Africa, the advent of democracy signified that a leader had to prove themselves, while for the leaders, it proved a paradigm shift in the management of power; a loss of the insularity of state politics. It meant that leaders had to show accountability, not only to their people, but also to external powers that existed as international institutions and hegemonic states with pro-democratic foreign policies.

Many issues with the African conception of democracy remain unresolved even despite many years of political transitioning for Africa’s largest economies. One of the issues that have remained unresolved in the African democracy is the perception of institutions by the individuals occupying them, another of these issues is the sensitivity of the African democracy to vibrant social movements where the protection of human rights is concerned.

In contemporary African democracies, there exists a new democratic space where social movements have engaged the political realities. One of the most empowering facts for social movements in Africa is the globalized effect of the social media and its pivotal role in ensuring government accountability.

In safe-guarding human rights and ensuring the protection of the rule of law in Africa, social movements have a huge role to play, as they are essential to achieving governmental accountability through a sustained engagement and with the power of collective insistence. In African states where the government is autocratic, social movements are a threat to state power and are thus met with violent resistance.

According to a study by Guillermo A O’Donnell, state repression have proven to be the constant response to social movements. This is because the greatest strategy of autocratic governments in stifling resistance that could lead to an explosive demonstration of popular discontent, is in the use of threats, intimidation and persecution. According to Human Rights Watch, in 2016, there was a violent suppression of peaceful protests in East Africa. In Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya, the governments responded to peaceful protesters with deadly force which led to the death and the injury of many protesters. In 2020, the Nigerian government engaged protesters and activists during the EndSARS protests with the security forces, which led to the deaths of unarmed protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos. The aftermath of the protests saw the Nigerian government intimidating activists that were thought to have been at the forefront of the End SARS protests and attempting to muzzle the media.

One of the greatest challenges of democracy in Africa is the imbalance of power in the governmental structure. The imbalance in the allocation of power between arms of government or in the monolithic representation of power has resulted in the overexploitation of power. This has made it difficult for the African states that are yet to transit to democratic status to do so, and for those that have transited, to perfect their democratic act.

Power balance

The power imbalance which could be attributed in some African countries like Nigeria to constitutional deficiencies was demonstrated when Obasanjo who became Nigeria’s president in 1999, tried to adjust constitutional term limits so that he could contest elections for a third term.  Social movements in Africa have toppled regimes in Africa and they have tremendous capacity to change the political course of a state.

 This could be achieved when social movements are popular and when they represent a general interest, then the interest which a government might claim it represents become invalidated by the shift in the alliance of the people. This is usually the case when there is a common agreement that the government in power no longer serves the interest of the people who elected such government.

The fear that spurs an autocratic government into attempting to repress social movement is that it might become popular. Social movements are powerful and could be harnessed for political change since they signal the activation of the collective power. At the level of the social movement, it is not a call to negotiation, but a call to swift action which both the government and the people recognize as it becomes insistent.  (

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